Predatory In The UK

Just a warning- the start of this post may well be upsetting to some. If you think this may be be you (particularly if you’ve recently lost a pet), then definitely skip the rest of this first paragraph now. Recently I was at Porthkerry Park, when a couple came up to the Ranger saying that their dog had been bitten by an Adder, and what should they do? They were told to go straight to the vets. It took them 10 minutes to get to the car park 50 yards away- mainly because the poor little dog could hardly walk. (I hope I don’t need to point out that you’re supposed to move about as little as possible after a venomous bite as it pumps the venom through your system quicker) That doesn’t include the several hundred yards they made it walk from the scene of the incident to where we were chatting. I found out that they came back a couple of days later because the vet had had to put the dog down. I HAVE to point out that the death of even a small dog due to an Adder bite is a very rare occurrence. This isn’t what I wanted to talk about though, but the other thing they were asking for leads me into today’s topic. Apparently, the thing they most wanted was not compensation, but “something to be done about the Adders.” In a Country Park. Obviously this is an attitude borne out of grief and pain (and hopefully guilt). Not only is it wrong, but it’s also nothing new.

Look back at these islands natural history. We’ve done nothing but eliminate our main predators, and we still continue to do so. Traditionally this was done through hunting. It’s easy to see why- successfully killing large and dangerous prey makes you much more brave and macho… if you’re of a certain mindset. We don’t know the extinction date for Brown Bears, but estimates range from 500 BC to 1000 AD. Lynxes were once thought to be extinct in Britain 4,000 years ago, but evidence arose showing they were still here about 1,500 years ago, so somewhere around 400 – 425 AD being given the extinction date. Grey Wolves were killed off here in the late 1600’s. All three species were wiped out due to hunting and the modern-sounding habitat destruction. In fact, the persecution of wolves was even endorsed by law. So what has that left us with for the last 350 years or so? By my reckoning  that leaves Red Fox, Badger, Scottish Wildcat and bids of prey. None of which are any real danger to us, but even then we don’t have a particularly friendly relationship with them- look at how many birds of prey have sen their numbers  plummet due to persecution by farmers and gamekeepers, as well as habitat destruction. Foxes have been reviled in popular media for as long as I can remember and longer. The Government seems determined to one-day kill as many badgers as possible for no real reason, and Scottish Wildcats, whose numbers are already scarily low due to centuries of habitat destruction now has to face their possible disappearance thanks to hybridisation with domestic/feral cats.

Not everybody wants to rid us of everything that runs a risk of hurting us. Some people want to bring back the predators. Whilst I have no problem with us having dangerous predators (taking “dangerous”to mean “has a chance of at least hurting us”), I do think that other things need to be taken into consideration. For example, would opposition to such a scheme be so fervent that people would start to take the law into their own hands and start to cull the animals themselves? I’m fairly sure that Bears would fall into that category.

Personally, I think the most important thing to take into consideration is the niche filled by that species. Basically, there are three outcomes to removing a species from an ecosystem. First one or more different species fills the gap left behind perfectly, and very little changes apart from the numbers of the incoming species. Secondly, one or more different species only partially fill the gap, leaving many smaller gaps unable to be filled at all. This causes imbalance. Thirdly is that there is nothing to fill the gap, so the gap stays, again  causing  imbalance. I struggled to find an analogy to help me explain this, but I came up with this- I hope it helps. If you have a round window that you don’t want, when you’ve taken it out you can fill the hole with cement, which completely fills the hole and everything is fine. If there isn’t any cement, you could always fill the hole with bricks. Unfortunately you can’t cut the bricks, so you fill the hole as best as you can- there are small holes around the edges, but it’s better than nothing. The final thing you can do is just leave the hole there.  I apologise for the poor-quality analogy, but I can’t decide whether or not it works, so decided to throw it out there and hope!

If the niche has been filled successfully and has been so for a certain length of time, then reintroduction could cause as much harm as the removal in the first place (the hard part here is how long and what factors to take into consideration. The longer I think about it, the more complicated it gets. The only thing I’m sure of is that the length of time is different for each species and each area.) However if the niche has only been filled partially, or even not at all, then a reintroduction is possible.  Reintroduction plans have been made for various species from Wolves to Ants. However looking at the Natural England website (the Governments adviser on the environment) reveals that the British Government has had nothing to do with the reintroduction of any mammal bigger than the Red Squirrel. There is a predator that once lived here, and would appear to tick all the boxes for a reintroduction. It’s a species that until recently has avoided the reintroduction-limelight. We all know about Wolves, Bears, and Beavers. Most of us are also aware of Large Blues and Short-haired Bumblebees, yet a lot of people aren’t even aware that we even used to be home to the Lynx, let alone reintroduce it. It’s at this point I’d expect a lot of people to have a knee-jerk reaction, deciding how preposterous  the idea is- maybe even stop reading here. Don’t. You can’t have an opinion without knowing the facts, so read on.

First of all, it’s shy. Very shy. And as such is rarely seen. It preys on Deer. In the UK Roe Deer and Muntjac are both overpopulated, causing problems with overgrazing in their woodland homes. A reintroduction would have two positive effects. First and most obvious would be the population control the introduction of a predator brings. The second and less obvious effect is that the introduction  of a predator would cause some Deer species to behave in a more nomadic and natural way. This means less grazing in any one area of woodland, resulting in a healthier balanced woodland.

Of course, there are worries of livestock being taken, but research in Europe shows that livestock is usually taken in places where deer populations are low, and then in relatively low numbers- in Switzerland in 2011, just 23 sheep were taken. A more insidious argument against reintroduction of Lynx comes from the hunting fraternity. Their argument is…(wait for it)…that the Lynx would hunt Deer that could be hunted by people. Seriously. THAT’s their argument. We’ll ignore the fact that predators don’t hunt prey to zero population levels, so there would be something for them to hunt. A reduction in quarry numbers makes the hunt more of a challenge, which should surely appeal to the hunter? Bearing in mind that, as I’ve already mentioned, Deer populations are so artificially high that they are causing an environmental nightmare in the woods they feed in, could this opposition from the hunters be an admission that it’s not about the thrill of the hunt, but the thrill of killing? I can draw no other conclusion. Other people are concerned about the effect on Capercaillie and Scottish Wildcats, as both are found in the same habitats as Lynx, and both are on a survival knife-edge. Again evidence suggest that this wouldn’t be a problem- a Swiss study showed that the 29 Lynx tracked killed just one of each of these species between them- in ten years. Estimates suggest that Northumberland and Scotland could easily support and sustain around 450 Lynx, and studies have yet to be done in the rest of England and Wales, but there is no reason to think they couldn’t survive there too.

Granted, Lynx reintroduction would probably attract less tourism than Wolves, but I believe that it’s shy and elusive nature would be attractive to photographers looking for a challenge (the thrill of the hunt that the hunters seem to have forgotten). I myself know a lot of people that would holiday in an area if there was even the vaguest chance of seeing something interesting- after all, it hasn’t done Loch Ness’s tourism any harm!

All the arguments against Lynx reintroduction come from selfishness, greed or fear. The first two reasons are valueless as arguments, and the third is easily combated by the simple expedient of explaining to people the extremely low risks involved. Sadly, I do think it’s too much to ask of the British press!

If you want to read more about the pros and cons of reintroducing Lynx, Wolf and Bear to the British Isles, then go to http://www.wildwoodtrust.org/files/reintroduction-large-carnivores.pdf Rather than being laid out by species, it’s laid out by section  (History, Ecology etc), with each section broken down by species. If you want to read about a single species, then there’s a fair amount of scrolling, but it’s worth it. Personally, I’d recommend reading all of it. But it’s up to you.

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